“Never ignore the elephant in the room. That’s rude; play with it and introduce it.” Donna Lynn Hope
Learning transfer seems to be the resident elephant in many rooms where a training programme is under discussion. When I point at the elephant, there is usually an acknowledgement of its existence, followed by a slide back into the comforting rut of course delivery. “Yeah, we need to do something about that, but right now we need to focus on the logistics for all the trainees from the EMEA region.”
Why do so many people in L&D do little or nothing about learning transfer when doing something is such simple common sense?
Perhaps the elephant has been there for so long that people in L&D now just assume that it’s part of the furniture. To me, this elephant is BIG, and impossible to ignore. To me, the case for proactively driving the learning transfer process is self-evident, and yet so many people choose to behave as if the elephant doesn’t exist. Why? If we look at some of the reasons that people avoid implementing learning transfer methods, we can start to understand how to change the conversation.
Learning transfer barriers
By the way, some of what follows may annoy you as I am being a bit provocative, or you may find you are gritting your teeth and wishing you didn’t agree…
- “I never really thought about it”
“Elephant? Really? Where? No-one else is mentioning it.”
Actually, many people are talking about the elephant in books, on blogs, at conferences. This is nothing new, and not uncommon. They may not call it ‘learning transfer’. They may use terms like ‘making learning stick’, ‘making training effective’, ‘embedding learning’ and many others.
Now that you are aware, start to notice how often you hear talk of the learning transfer elephant. If your colleagues don’t talk about the elephant, you will need to look outside your own organisation to avoid the internal groupthink that is ignoring the elephant. Then come back and ask some pointed questions about training effectiveness within your own organisation and what might need to be done to make training more effective.
- “My job is to train people or deliver other formal learning”
“You asked for training; you got it. Job done. Our responsibility finishes at the end of the course. Learning transfer is not our responsibility.” In effect, they are saying that their job is delivering information and not building skills that require practice based on that information. They see the necessary skill building and behaviour change as a job for those out in the field.
This attitude arises when L&D set themselves up as an order taker, as a shopkeeper. One of the common tools that contribute to this paradigm is the traditional Learning Management System (LMS), with its list of courses and events that people can book to attend. It’s like ordering something off an online shopping site where the seller is not involved in any way with how the product will be used. Some even have an algorithm that says, “Other learners who attended this course also attended these other courses.”
A common lament I hear among L&D people is their lack of access to the top table and exclusion from top-level decision making. I often find that the people with this lament are the very same people who have the ‘shopkeeper attitude’. Think about it for a minute. Would you, as a senior decision maker in an organisation, want to have the head shopkeeper from a small peripheral department at your board table? Not likely.So, start getting interested in how people are using your training courses, and why they order them in the first place. Assume that at least part of the process of learning transfer is your responsibility and notice how that shifts your thinking about your role as a trainer and as a course/programme designer. People want a training course to solve a problem they have. What is that problem? Become someone who solves problems for people rather than someone who just sells stuff that might be a solution if the buyer has chosen wisely. If we are buying anything other than a commodity, we really appreciate the expertise of a salesperson who takes the time and effort to find out what problem we are trying to solve and then guides us to a viable solution.
- “We buy the training from an external supplier”
When the training is outsourced, the external training provider is primarily interested in selling training. If the subject of learning transfer is even discussed, it becomes a finger pointing exercise. The training company says that it is up to the client to handle learning transfer activities, and the client points at the training company saying that their training course has not worked. To me, responsibility lies in both camps. The procurement process within the client company should be making sure that it is buying all the components needed to ensure the success of the training course.Otherwise, it is a bit like buying a car without the wheels. Equally, the selling process within the training provider should ensure that their client understands the need for effective learning transfer and should provide help and support to put that in place. Unfortunately, it seems to be acceptable to buy training, and to sell training, without wheels.
- Management says, “It’s not our responsibility”
Management says that their job is operational excellence, not staff development. “L&D should be doing staff development.”
There are two aspects to this. One is that most management role job descriptions include a section that states their responsibility for developing the members of their team. If the job description does not include this responsibility, it should. The second aspect, which they also cannot run away from, is that most of the learning that happens at work, happens on their watch in the general day-to-day workflow. The 70:20:10 learning model tells us this, and even a moment’s reflection also tells us this from our own experience of where we learned to do what we do at work.What most managers don’t understand is that unbeknownst to them, they have superpowers. These powers manifest themselves every time the manager answers a question, delegates a task, or has a conversation or other form of interaction with a team member. They also manifest when a team member observes how their manager interacts with anybody else – either directly or in any other way. By their actions, the manager sets the mini culture within the team to be accountable or not, to learn or not, to blame or not, to help or not, to experiment or not, to seek excellence or not, to serve customers or not, to go the extra mile or not. Employees look to their manager for a lead to understand what is rewarded and what is frowned upon.
Every manager has an immense effect on how their team functions and performs, and most don’t begin to comprehend the magnitude of their power. They are ‘developing’ their team members to behave a certain way by being the manager they are, and they have far more power over developing/moulding team behaviour than L&D ever will. A manager cannot abdicate their input into staff development because it is already baked into their role. They have no choice in the matter. The question is whether they will become aware of their power and use it consciously, or whether they remain unaware and use it haphazardly.
- “Our managers are not trained coaches”
Some would say that if we mandate that learning transfer is a management responsibility, managers couldn’t do it effectively anyway because they don’t have the time/skill/inclination/support.
This excuse is really scary because of the aforementioned superpowers. If people are unaware of their superpowers, the best we can hope for is that the use of those powers for better or for worse cancels out into some overall neutral effect. But think how much is to be gained by harnessing them for the greater good. We need to take a leaf from the superhero comic books where the nascent hero becomes aware of their powers and then ideally learns from a teacher to use them wisely. In comic land, a superhero who uses their powers for the greater good is one of the good guys, and one who gets seduced into using their powers for their own gains, or just doesn’t care about the consequences of their actions, is one of the bad guys.Good managers should already have an amount of time in their schedules for regular, maybe weekly, one-on-ones, and discussions about learning transfer from a recent training course can take place in that time. But many managers don’t do regular one-to-ones, and therefore have no protected time available for learning transfer support. To me, a manager who admits to not doing one-on-ones is admitting to being a poor manager of their team, a poor manager of their time, and a poor manager of their boss who has given them their workload, which they have accepted. Coaching is a tool used to help people attain their goals, so it follows that programmes supported by one-on-one coaching show a better transfer of learning. It is true that a manager cannot be expected to have the same level of coaching and mentoring skills as a trained coach and therefore may not be able to support their team member in the same way as a professional, however, the manager is usually present from day to day, where an external coach is not. The manager has an enormous impact because of their own attitude towards learning and experimenting with new ideas, and because of the way they manage the environment around the trainee as they embed their new learning. The manager can also be supported with tips and guides on how to provide support for team members who are doing a training course. They could even be supported by coaches if the programme warrants it.In my opinion, letting managers off the hook for supporting learning transfer, which is something that is largely within their sphere of influence and responsibility, is just perpetuating an unacceptable situation from generation to generation of managers. Stop the cycle and get the managers involved as coaches – no matter what it costs. The rewards for moving towards a coaching culture are significant, and not just for learning transfer.
- “We can’t afford to do it”
Some L&D people say that doing things to facilitate the learning transfer process takes time, money, and resources that they do not have.
If you can’t afford to do effective learning transfer, it seems rather silly to waste money on training that will, as a result, be largely ineffective. Think of it this way. You have a budget for L&D. Consider how you can get the most business benefits from that budget rather than how you can deliver the most trainings. And note that focusing on business benefits, performance, productivity, and results may win you larger budgets.
- “Our people are not ready for that kind of change”
Whenever I hear this excuse, in my mind I am thinking, ‘This L&D person is not ready to fight for that kind of change.’
The next thing that goes through my mind is ‘What are they scared will be uncovered by asking people to do something with what they have learned on a training course, and asking other people, such as their managers, to help them?’ Sure, people, especially managers, will need support, but to say baldly that managers are not ready, and therefore introducing learning transfer is not possible?
- “We don’t know how to add learning transfer methods to our training”
I do sometimes hear, “We know we should be doing something about learning transfer, but we don’t know how to modify our training programmes to include it.”
So, start reading about it. Start with resources on this website and my book on ‘Learning Transfer at Work: How to Ensure Training >> Performance’ which includes 166 tips and references to other sources of good information on learning transfer. Then look for other resources on the web.
You may not realise it, but there has been over one hundred years of research into learning transfer, so there is plenty of material around.
- “What we do does not make any real difference”
Most training courses do indeed have things tagged on that are designed to encourage learning transfer. This might be something as simple as asking trainees to set some goals related to the course or asking the line manager to have a conversation with the trainee about the course. The problem is that not enough is done, and often what is done, like the two examples mentioned, are largely insufficient and so are ineffective. To deliver effective learning transfer, you need to commit to the process and develop a full learning workflow that has all the elements needed to get the behavioural results you want.
- “No one is asking for it, so why change things?”
People may not be asking for learning transfer by name because they don’t know what they don’t know, but they are probably asking for better training because they want better results from training. Or they are asking for cheaper and quicker training so the results they are accustomed to getting don’t seem so expensive. Is there pressure on your L&D budget because it is seen as an organisational spend that does not produce the results that could be gained by spending that money elsewhere in the organisation? Have you ever mentioned the fact that you could wrap a workflow/programme around a training course to achieve good levels of learning transfer and therefore improve the results it gets?Those who ask for training do so often on this assumption…
– Training = exposure to content
– Content exposure = learning
– Learning = behaviour change
– Behaviour change = better performance and results.
In other words, they erroneously believe that L&D has sacks full of pixie dust in the back room to sprinkle on trainees, which means that trainees return from a training course with their new knowledge and skills fully operational. Of course, if you do have any pixie dust left, you don’t need to do anything about learning transfer. You can ignore this article and give the link to someone who doesn’t know where to buy pixie dust.
- “Why add cost to training which usually does not live up to expectations?”
This excuse obviously begs the question as to why they are doing the training in the first place. It’s analogous to a man standing in front of a fireplace with an armful of wood insisting that the fire gives him more heat before he gives it more wood.
The question really should be “How can we make our training more effective at getting the outcomes we want?”
- “Getting the trainees through the test is all that matters.”
This happens when training is put in place primarily for compliance purposes because there is a need to tick some regulatory boxes.
I can understand this at the surface level, but to me, this seems a short-term approach. If there are regulations in place to drive/control how people behave in certain regulated circumstances, one would hope that organisations try and achieve those behaviours. We are therefore back to the same need for effective learning transfer that achieves behaviour change. Years ago, I visited a large care home and caught the tail end of a training course on infectious disease control. I was there to speak with the person delivering the training, so I waited at the back. On our way to his office, the trainer and I followed a group of the trainees and watched as they returned to their ward. Only about a third of them used the antiseptic hand dispenser as they walked in the door, despite the training course they had attended a few minutes ago. I asked him how many people used to use the hand sanitiser dispensers, and he shrugged. From the trainer’s point of view, he had fulfilled his obligation to train people and tick a box, but he seemed impervious to the obvious lack of behavioural change as a result of the training. This seemed to me rather bizarre.
On a more optimistic note, I remember a meeting with the head of compliance of a sizeable pharmaceutical company. She was new in her post and was in the process of rethinking how they delivered on their compliance obligations. Her thinking was very different to that of the care home trainer. She came to the realisation that she might well need to run separate tracks of activity in terms of compliance training. One track would be focused on getting the various boxes ticked by delivering the type of training that conformed to the requirements of the regulatory authorities. The other track would be focused on behavioural changes so employees would be far less likely to break the regulations.
We just saw 12 reasons why people in L&D avoid implementing learning transfer methods. This is by no means a complete list. What are the other ‘excuses’ for not calling out the elephant?
Take a moment and list the barriers in your organisation to discussing and implementing effective learning transfer tools and activities… What supports those barriers and keeps them in place?
What do your colleagues say about it?
How can you change the conversation?
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Read next: The case for learning transfer >